South African singer Tyla sparks culture war over racial identity

CAPE TOWN - Caught in a culture war, South Africa’s hottest music sensation Tyla is in the crossfire of an online debate over the word she uses to describe her racial identity –‘coloured’. Before her rise to fame, the 21-year-old made a video proudly talking about her mixed-raced heritage on TikTok. In it she slicks her coily hair into Bantu knots, while donning a traditional beaded necklace, with the words, “I am a coloured South African” splashed across the clip like a badge of honour. The star says this means that she “comes from a lot of different cultures”. It is a simple video intended to share a part of herself with her audience. But instead, her racial identity has stoked flames across the internet, most notably, in the US. Americans see the word as a slur, unlike Tyla’s South African community, who see it as a part of their culture. In South Africa, it is a distinct identity that is officially recognised. One US user on X, formerly known as Twitter, said: “We are not gonna call her coloured here and if she personally demands it, her career will end before it begins. “She’s trying to cross over into an American market, she won’t be able to use that word here, she can use it somewhere else though.” In the US, the word harks back to the Jim Crow era, when segregationist laws were instituted in the southern states to oppress black Americans after slavery was banned. Water fountains, toilets and bus seats were marked “whites only” or “colored only”. This painful history of racial segregation mirrors that in South Africa before white-minority rule ended in 1994. Apartheid was a political system with a racial hierarchy privileging white South Africans. The Population Registration Act of 1950 required people to be registered into one of four racial categories - white, black, Indian or coloured. Another law designated residential areas according to race.

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